Practicing the Art of Self-Compassion

Compassion is defined as the “emotional response when perceiving suffering and involves an authentic desire to help.” It is not just empathy in the sense that it has the added element of wanting to alleviate or reduce someone else’s suffering, and it is not altruism in that altruism may not necessarily involve empathy or compassion as justification for self-sacrificing behavior. While compassion is a noble and loving attribute practiced by many of us, very rarely do we extend ourselves the same sort of kindness.

Self-compassion is the act of showing kindness and sympathy in the face of imperfections, obstacles, and failures in the same way you would to a friend. Kristen Neff, author of Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind, advocates for the cultivation of self-compassion. She says that self-compassion has three components:

1. Self-kindness : Instead of getting angry or showing self-blame, self-compassionate people are gentle with themselves and demonstrate a warm understanding of themselves. They embrace rather than deny or fight realities.

2. Common humanity : Self-compassionate people recognize that suffering and feelings of inadequacy are part of the shared human experience. They also recognize that personal thoughts and feelings are influenced by external factors (ie, history, culture).

3. Mindfulness : This involves observing thoughts and feelings as they are, without suppressing or denying them. It is completely non-judgmental and requires openness and clarity.

Neff has studied self-compassion extensively and has found that those who practice self-compassion show better mental health. When we practice self-compassion, we are actually changing our body chemistry in addition to changing our mental and emotional experiences. Self-compassion triggers the release of oxytocin, the body’s “trust hormone,” and decreases cortisol levels (the body’s “stress hormone”). Thus, self-compassion may be an integral component of our body’s self-healing system!

Given the inherent benefits of self-compassion, how can we be more self-compassionate?
PsychCentral Associate Editor, Margarita Tartakovsky, offers five strategies:

1. Consider how you’d treat someone else.
2. Watch your language.
3. Comfort yourself with a physical gesture.
4. Memorize a set of compassionate phrases.
5. Practice guided meditation.

Self-compassion is so powerful that research indicates that it produces more stable feelings of self-worth than self-esteem. This is most likely because it is not concerned with physical appearance and does not involves narcissism. Thus, it is not enough just to love yourself, but to also be kind to yourself.

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